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  • Mediated by Gifts: Politics and Society in Japan, 1350–1850 ed. by Martha Chaiklin
  • Jeroen Lamers (bio)
Mediated by Gifts: Politics and Society in Japan, 1350–1850. Edited by Martha Chaiklin. Brill, Leiden, 2016. xiv, 252 pages. €99.00, cloth; €99.00, E-book.

Mediated by Gifts is a collection of excellent essays and Martha Chaiklin deserves high praise for having put it together. There must be many occasions in which the organization of a conference panel does not translate [End Page 161] into the subsequent production of a book. In this happy case, it did. The contributing authors highlight different, fascinating aspects of the deeply engrained culture of gift giving in premodern Japan. Needless to say, that culture is still very much alive in modern Japan. It seems that Lee Butler is really the towering figure behind this book. He makes an excellent contribution, mining much-neglected diary source materials, and is the fluent translator of two other articles. Chaiklin graciously acknowledges Butler's importance in her preface.

The book's chronological structure and build up works well. Though the periodization of 1350 to 1850 does feel a bit arbitrary at first, it actually places the phenomenon of gift exchange squarely in the heyday and gradually mounting ascendancy of the Japanese warrior class. Their domination was more or less complete by the turn of seventeenth century and then continued for another two-and-a-half centuries. Most fascinatingly, we actually see how Japan's aspiring military rulers used gifts to get things done, legitimize themselves as bountiful and generous patrons, and forge new alliances with an impoverished but still politically relevant imperial court. Under Tokugawa rule, there was no letup in the exchange of gifts, and the essay of Cecilia Segawa Seigle argues for a much-increased regimentation and coercion of the practice under the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646–1709).

Within this chronological framework, a number of the essays stand out because of their excellent use of sources. The topic of gifts, and how these featured in social networks and as carriers of political messages, is unique for its ability to cast a fresh light on sources that may easily be dismissed as quotidian, lacking anything that rises above the dreary and diaristic. Yet the long-running imperial diary called Oyudono-no-Ue no nikki, which was kept and maintained over the centuries by female palace officials, has much to tell us about the choreography of political maneuvering between warlords and court in the Sengoku period. Butler has done a marvelous job, on the basis of the Oyudono-no-Ue no nikki, of reconstructing the impressive list of small gifts that the rising national hegemon Oda Nobunaga (1534–82) used to solidify his relations with the imperial court. His gifts ranged from boxes of dried persimmons to melons, from fish to fruits. Occasionally, Butler shows, a gift went in the other direction, from emperor to Nobunaga. By accepting his bounty, the court sanctioned Nobunaga as their chosen man, the new "pillar of the military." The historical implications of this exchange are far from insignificant. While there certainly were nonconformist and iconoclastic elements in Nobunaga's political posture, his small gift items to the imperial court shed a more traditional light on him, following in the footsteps of earlier ambitious military men.

Andrew Goble's analysis of another diary, the Tokitsune-kyō ki, is similarly impressive and shows the hard work that went into early modern gifting [End Page 162] in Japan. The diary's author was Yamashina Tokitsune (1543–1611), an aristocrat-cum-physician who lived and worked in the Kyoto-Osaka region. Gifts, both their giving and receiving, were obviously important to Tokitsune. Otherwise he would not have kept such a diligent record of them in his 10,000-day diary. One fascinating aspect of Tokitsune's track record is that he exchanged gifts with a "broad spectrum of the population" (p. 84). In fact, it is through his "practices and patterns of gift giving" (p. 82) that we understand how far Tokitsune's social action radius extended beyond his aristocratic peers. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, Tokitsune customarily donated a modest...


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